So it’s 8.23pm on a Tuesday evening and I am glued to the television. A young man, who is sporting that classic fashion combination of a woolly tank top and a grubby apron, is staring through an oven door keeping perspicacious watch over a batch of biscuits. If he waits too long before taking them out, he risks them being overly coloured and burnt. Not long enough and they will be too pale or undercooked.
I am gripped.
And, according to recent viewing figures, so are almost 6 million others. Now in its third series, The Great British Bake Off has become must watch TV, but what exactly is it about this midweek BBC2 baking competition that has captured the heart of the nation? Here’s my take on some of its most endearing qualities.
1. It’s talked about TV. It’s a fact: GBBO does for small talk what cranberries did for Wensleydale. Just when you think conversation is getting a bit dry, or you need something to break the ice with that colleague you only sort of know, try dropping the GBBO bombshell into the conversation. I have had such conversations on the train, in coffee shops, in church and in pubs and in my experience the “Did you see…?” question always results in one of two responses. One is an immediate widening of the eyes and a cascade of “Yes.. those gingerbread houses/strudels/tortes looked amazing” and the other? “Well, no.. I haven’t seen it, but everybody has been talking about it”. People who watch it want to talk about it, and people who don’t watch it know somewhere deep down inside themselves that they are missing out. Watching GBBO is a communal experience (even if you watch it alone!) and this kind of shared viewing experience is something of a rare delicacy in the midst of the televisual buffet offered to us in an age of TV on Demand.
2. It’s educational. So Masterchef is educational in that without it I would have happily gone about my life not even knowing that fennel existed (what a dreadful thought). GBBO on the other hand is like discovering a treasury of secrets about foods which you have not only heard of, but have probably even eaten. Did you know that bagels were boiled in water? Or that the reason your bread hasn’t risen is because the salt and yeast have combined and killed each other? Do you realise just how much butter has gone into that croissant that you’re eating? Watching The Bake Off is like unwrapping the layers of the food we love and peeking inside. Of course, there are the more unusual bakes too; I for one have never eaten a choux gateau (let alone one in the shape of a bicycle) or a Fraisier cake (turns out it’s nothing to do with the sitcom..) but I am comforted by the fact that more often than not the contestants haven’t either. And as if it wasn’t enough to simply watch the rum babas come into being, such bakes are often accompanied with a history lesson which gently guides along, not only leaving us feeling enlightened, but giving us hope in the knowledge that there is such a job as a “Food Historian”.
3. Things go wrong. Remember when Kathryn threw her sweetdough on the floor? When John almost cut off his finger and didn’t get to finish making his strudel? Or cast your mind back to Series 2 when Rob spent hours making the most beautiful two tiered chocolate cake. And then dropped the entire thing on the floor. In The Bake Off, anything can (and does) happen. Bread doesn’t rise, creme patissiere doesn’t set, flavour combinations make Paul Hollywood gag; in fact, baking disasters are almost as common as showstopping successes. These are real people who make real mistakes, and that certainly makes great television.
4. Nobody takes themselves too seriously. Think of all the times you have heard an X-Factor contestant say (probably to the backdrop of an emotional Westlife song and with tears streaming down their face), “singing is my life” or “if I don’t make it through bootcamp, I don’t know what I will do…” or “this show is the only chance I have to make something of my life”. It is massively refreshing therefore, to watch a programme in which the contestants are well rounded enough to know that this programme is not the be all and end all. If a cake is dropped, yes, there is momentary panic and obvious disappointment, but there are certainly no Rylan style emotional outbursts. And when the Bake Off journey ends any tears are invariably accompanied by, “I’ve had such a great time and I’m grateful for the experience” and contestants seem utterly content to go back to their jobs, homes and families. For once, here is a reality competition which does not in any way claim that it will completely transform your life and, oh boy that makes it a breath of fresh air to watch.
6. You get the cakes without the calories. Ok well you don’t get the cakes, but you do get to stare at them. A lot. And if you believe the rumour that whisky loving heartthrob James put on two stone during the filming of the series, then maybe in front of the screen really is the best way to experience all those culinary delights. (Who am I kidding… we’d all love to be in that tent consuming those delicious calories).
So there you have it. Just a few of the many things which make The Great British Bake Off so great, and that’s without even delving into the wonders of Mary’s fashion sense, Paul (admit it, he is a silver fox) or the lovely fact that the whole thing is filmed in a tent in the countryside. So as we prepare ourselves for tomorrow nights big final (and collectively mourn the inadequacy of the snacks in our cupboards) let’s escape from the pressures of everyday life together by getting emotionally involved in watching people make cakes, and rejoice in the fact that there is still something on television that’s worth watching. Even if we have to take it with a pinch of salt…or sugar.